If you’re lookin’ for truffle: Lim with the truffle-hunting dog, Latte, at Manjimup Truffles, Western Australia.
Dux of her school in Perth, she could have been anything, and in fact turned out to be several things. She’s an actor, a television presenter (Destination Flavour, on SBS) a dancer, and a teacher of dancing, to adults and to kids after school. Oh, and she’s also a medical doctor.
Being solely a doctor wasn’t her childhood dream. That dream was multifaceted.
“Until 17, when I finally had to choose what I was going to do, I was going to be a doctor on weekdays, a lawyer on weekends, an actor on the holidays and a dancer at night,” she says. “I’ve managed to do pretty much all of them, except for the lawyer part.
“When I was applying for uni I just applied for everything. Medicine, law, engineering, performing arts, at all these different universities. And when I got into everything, I thought ‘What do I want to do?’. I ended up choosing medicine.”
I’ve met Lim, 34, at St Ali, a bustling café in South Melbourne, where her groovy persona fits in well. She speaks with passion about all her endeavours and is extremely versatile, even within the discipline of medicine. She works as a locum in emergency wards around Sydney, as a “geriatrician” for older people and in palliative care.
“It’s quite different,” she says of her work. “Most geriatricians would never want to do emergency and most emergency people would never do palliative care. I work as a contractor, so you go where the work is, to start with.
“The work for me was mostly in emergency. I’ve always had an interest in geriatrics because it’s holistic medicine, multifunctional medicine. Lots of things go wrong and the question is how do you balance what you do right? It’s less black and white than other areas of medicine, and I like that. I like the challenge of making decisions with patients, which is where palliative care came in, because palliative care is all about someone deciding to die and doing that with dignity and doing that with the choices they want to make as to how they want to die.
“It is emotional (and) it’s surprisingly really rewarding. Everyone dies. Every time you deal with a patient in hospital they could be dying. But the difference in this case is … they have their own sense of control and power over what happens to them. You see people look back over their lives and make changes, even in those last weeks and months. The change that you see in people is quite inspiring, quite amazing.”
Emergency is meant to patch people up and move on. “I tend to be a little more involved,” she says. “Some of my emergency patients say ‘Where do you normally work? Can I come and see you after this?’, and I say ‘Unless you want to come back to the emergency department and wait six hours, then probably not’.”
Renee Lim was born and grew up in Perth, a dutiful, energetic and extroverted girl. “I’ve been performing – singing, dancing, acting – since I was five,” she says.
She was a star student. “I did very well at school. It wasn’t a very academic school. I didn’t go to a selective or a private school. A very small number of people in my high-school year went to university. Getting dux of school unfortunately doesn’t put me in the same category as a lot of the private schools.”
Lim’s parents separated when she was five. Her mother moved to Sydney and then to Malaysia, where she had family. Renee was largely raised by her father.
“Sydney was her dream place,” Lim says of her mother. “When she moved to Perth, it was for my dad. She always wanted to go to Sydney. Sydney was bright and glamorous and fun and I think that’s where she would have chosen, but instead she went to Perth. The parochial nature of Perth … 30 years ago – it was very different back them.”
Lim’s mother lived in Malaysia for much of her daughter’s schooling life. “I would travel to Malaysia to see her quite often.”
The teenage Renee travelled a lot, including to Sydney where her mother lived for a while. She travelled to the US and “a lot of Asia”. At 17 she went to live in Sydney to study. Years of travel and helping her single father had prepared her for living away from home.
“I’d done a lot of travelling before I got on that plane to come to Sydney. My main fear – and my parents always remind me of this – I remember saying to my mother and father ‘What if no one likes me? What if I don’t make any friends?’.”
Doctor at large: Renee Lim in her medical role.
That was never a problem. Young Renee was popular and a leader. Friends looked to her for guidance and support. She had the empathy for people and the capacity to listen that was going to serve her well later in a medical career.
It helped her cope with home life. Her father remarried and he had a son with his new wife. I asked Lim if she missed her mother. “I guess so. Yeah. You have two choices – you either rebel or you adapt. I chose to adapt. I think that’s my natural personality; to go with the flow.”
How did her father cope? “He coped as best he could.” And her stepbrother? “He’s 12 years younger than me. So for the first 12 years it was me and my dad, and then the stepmum came into the picture.”
Did Lim ever wonder why her mother had gone? “Definitely. She went because she didn’t belong in a place like Perth. She had family in Malaysia. In some ways it was the culture she understood. She remarried and her partner drew her back there.”
Did this experience mean Renee grew up more quickly? “Oh definitely. The words ‘old soul’ are probably thrown around a lot when people talk about me. I used to hate it when I was a kid – ‘I’m not an old soul!’ – but now I probably accept it. I don’t know whether I was born with it or if it came about because of my childhood.”
Why old soul? “From a very young age I was probably very much the woman in the house. That was something I took on. I take on responsibility very quickly. Asian cultures – and ethnic cultures in general – especially in the ’80s and early ’90s, would form little cliques. Because you’re all in Perth, all these Chinese and Malaysians would all hang out together.
“There was a group of about six kids. I wasn’t the oldest child but I was the one who was always in charge, the one who would keep them all together, I’d be at the head of the table at the restaurants, I would be the one who organised all the games … I’ve always been very responsible. And probably a little bit more aware of emotional states of people and reacted to that. It meant at school being the prefect, being the one who organised the graduation. And being quite happy to not be the centre of attention.”
Lim has nurtured her acting career alongside medicine. She spent three seasons playing Constable Jung Lim in the SBS drama East West 101, set around the major crime squad in Sydney. “That was a great experience,” she says.
For a year she was in the hospital drama All Saints. She was in the cast in 2008 when young actor and All Saints cast member Mark Priestley leapt from a Sydney hotel window to his death.
“That was quite horrible,” she says. “It was a weird experience being on the outskirts of that because everyone in the cast as regulars were very affected and knew him quite well.
“As a doctor, that was very full-on for me … He was going to come to one of my dance classes. We spoke two or three weeks before it happened. But I wasn’t on the inside circle. It was interesting to be on the periphery … because normally I would be involved in it. I’m the one my friends come to when things get bad. And as a doctor, I’m the one dealing with the suicidal, depressed patient. That sense of having no purpose, being ineffectual, was quite a challenging one for me.”
Lim has recently known tragedy closer to her own life. Last year her partner of 14 months died of cancer. “It was quite huge. And obviously unexpected. You deal with life as best you can.”
She has strong philosophies about the way life should be lived. “If you just choose every day to be the best you can as a human being … The fingerprints I will leave on the world – I can only control what I do in this world on that day … As long as every single day those fingerprints that I leave are mine and have some integrity.”
She feels blessed about her acting career. “In acting and performing, it’s luck. You can be the best at your job, you can work as hard as you like but the best and the hardest-working don’t always make it. So I feel very lucky to be in the situation I’m in.”
The crew: Lily Serna (left), Renee Lim and Adam Liaw, the Destination Flavour host/presenters.
At 34 she’s had great challenges and triumphs. “I’ve had such amazing experiences. Doing palliative care, my concept of death is very different from most people’s. I see death as a part of life. People get quite scared of it and say ‘I’ve got things I have to do still’ and I say that if I died tomorrow I’d be really happy. I don’t have things I’ve (always) wanted to do, which in one sense makes it easier to tick the boxes when there aren’t boxes to tick.”
Lim has a busy life. Until a year ago she taught dance each week – “contemporary jazz, bit of hip-hop, bit of funk” – but things got too hectic, especially as she is following up her role on SBS’s Food Investigations with the food and travel show Destination Flavour.
It didn’t take too much convincing to get her on board, especially as she’s not the biggest foodie in the world. “I love cooking. I am not a foodie. It’s a hard thing to say nowadays, right, because everyone’s a foodie. But don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to pay a lot of money for food, so if that makes me a foodie that’s OK.”
The sell for this new show was easy. “Once again, hook: human, people. This show is about people. Less about the food, more about the people. We travel to different parts of Australia and we find people who are passionate about food: the food producer at one end or amazing chefs at the other, from truffles grown in WA to the young ex-rock singer who farms marron in south-western Australia.
“Their stories involve a lot of failures and a lot of maybes and a lot of time. I (am) someone who likes to educate and open up people’s horizons. People take so much for granted.”
That’s something Renee Lim has never done.
More » www.sbs.com.au/shows/destinationflavour
Watch » Destination Flavour is on SBS Thursdays at 8pm.